NOTE: This profile originally appeared on the Stadium Wall on May 11, 2008, the day Smith’s Wall of Fame selection was announced. The slightly edited version seen here was printed in The Coffin Corner, the newsletter-magazine of the Professional Football Researchers Association, in June.
Fact: Bruce Smith is one of the greatest players in NFL history.
He’d be quick to agree, of course, as would all but the most contrary Buffalo Bills fan, but the unbiased views of players and coaches around the league provide a truer measure of Smith’s impact on the game:
“He’s an opposing coach’s nightmare,” said Larry Beightol, one of several Jets offensive line coaches who tried – but failed, more often than not – to keep the perennial All-Pro from pummeling their quarterbacks. “You watch film of him, you don’t sleep that week. I don’t really think there’s a way to stop him. He’s at another level.” Veteran coach Jim Hanifan agreed, saying he was “the most formidable player since Deacon Jones.”
Colts tackle Zefross Moss was even more emphatic after Smith’s 11-tackle, three-sack performance against him in a 38-0 Bills beatdown: “He’s the greatest defensive lineman to ever play the game.”
You want numbers?
And now, a few words from the always-quotable guest of honor:
“I always dreamed of being rich, to be someone special. I guess everything worked out OK.”
- Olean Times Herald, April 30, 1985
The Bills earned the No. 1 overall pick in the draft with a brutal 2-14 season in 1984, losing their first 11 games, allowing a franchise-record 454 points, and redefining “run for the bus” with a pathetic 52-21 finale in Cincinnati. The fans wanted Doug Flutie, but in January, he signed with the New Jersey Generals of the rival USFL. General manager Terry Bledsoe and director of pro personnel Bill Polian then concentrated their focus on Smith, the Outland Trophy winner and consensus All-American whose 16 sacks in his senior year at Virginia Tech eclipsed the performance of the entire Bills defensive line (10.5). The Baltimore Stars – who held his USFL rights – made a few preliminary overtures, but after signing a reported four-year, $2.6 million contract with Buffalo in February, Smith said, “I guess it’s every young boy’s dream to play in the NFL.”
Smith ranked near the top of most draft boards, but the evaluations weren’t uniformly positive. From the Times Herald’s draft-day preview:
“For the record, one scouting service tabbed the 6-3, 275-pounder as the best DE in the draft and rated only four players higher overall: running backs Herschel Walker (in the USFL) and Ethan Horton (North Carolina) along with wide receivers Eddie Brown (Miami) and Al Toon (Wisconsin).
“In assessing Smith’s strengths, the service noted, ‘He’s massive and extremely mobile with great initial quickness. Naturally strong. Can flat-out dominate a game when he plays up to his ability.’ On the negative side it added, ‘He doesn’t always play hard and has a weight problem.’ In summing up Smith’s future, it noted, ‘He could be King Kong in shoulder pads, or just another guy.’”
He started the first two games of his rookie season, but was relegated to pass-rushing duty after the Jets administered a 42-3 beating in Week 2, with running back Freeman McNeil gouging the Bills for a franchise-record 192 yards. The benching didn’t last long. Kay Stephenson’s head-coaching tenure staggered to a merciful end at 0-4, and when Colts RBs Randy McMillan (112 yards) and Albert Bentley (100) welcomed Hank Bullough to the top job by trampling the defense in another blowout loss, Smith regained his spot at right end – a position that he would keep, barring injury or suspension, for fifteen seasons.
“If someone is going to go out there and single block me, I don’t think that’s fair to the offensive lineman. I can’t be single-blocked.”
- Olean Times Herald, Oct. 22, 1989
By the end of the 1988 season, Smith was gaining recognition around the league ... and seriously thinking about leaving Buffalo. He’d made his second straight All-Pro squad despite missing the first four games to a drug suspension that stirred up the hate-mail crowd, and the Buffalo News was reporting that the team had hired detectives to follow him. So when the Broncos presented him with a five-year, $7.5-million offer sheet, he strongly suggested that the Bills not match it. At least one local sportscaster agreed with him, saying the team would be better off with the two No. 1 picks they’d receive in return (and without his off-the-field issues). Polian, by then the general manager, knew better. He matched the offer sheet, and Smith remained a Bill.
Bad news for the quarterbacks in the rest of the AFC East. He blew past the franchise sack record (previously set at 51 by Ben Williams) before the midpoint of his fifth year in the league, dumping favorite target Ken O’Brien three times as the Bills pounded the Jets. The season would come to a disappointing end in the wild-card playoff game at Cleveland, but better days were ahead.
“I think that, right now, on defense, I’m the hottest thing going. It’s as simple as that. When I walk down the street, I want people to say, ‘There goes Bruce Smith. He’s the best defensive player in the league.’ I don’t want them to say, ‘Hey, he’s second to Reggie White, or he’s second to Lawrence Taylor.’ I want them to say, ‘He’s the best there is in the league right now.’ ”
- Olean Times Herald, Dec. 10, 1990
Smith made that bold claim before a business trip to Indianapolis, where he proceeded to back up his bravado by sacking Colts rookie quarterback Jeff George four times – IN THE FIRST HALF. By the end of the game, an easy-as-it-looked 31-7 Bills victory, the shellshocked George was reduced to muttering expletives as Smith bore down on him yet again. Chuck Pollock’s column in the next day’s Times Herald began with the quote, “If you can do it ... it ain’t bragging!”
The performance against Indy gave him 19 sacks for the year – just three shy of Mark Gastineau’s record – with three games left on the schedule. The next game was a nationally-televised affair against the Giants, and he provided the New York media with something to write about: “Over the last 10 years, Lawrence Taylor has been the most dominant player in the league, but I think I’ve taken it up a notch above that. You’ve got to give credit to the person who deserves it. It would be an injustice if I don’t get the MVP.”
Although Taylor declined to discuss the comments, some of his Giants teammates took predictable offense. The media apparently agreed with Smith’s assessment, though, as the AP, UPI, Football News, and Pro Football Weekly all awarded him Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The individual accolades were piling up, but one thing was still missing ... a championship. Nobody knew it then, of course, but Scott Norwood’s final field goal attempt in Super Bowl XXV was the closest any of those star-studded teams would ever come to capturing the Lombardi Trophy.
“I have said over and over again, I am not in this game to be second best to anyone.”
- The Sporting News, Dec. 8, 1997
While the Bills never managed to cross that last river, Smith’s personal quest continued with a single goal: to be the best there ever was. The kid who tipped the scales at 300 pounds after his rookie season now played 30 pounds lighter than that, spending countless hours in the gym to sculpt his physique. He studied film until he became an expert at diagnosing plays from the line of scrimmage, the better to create havoc in the other team’s backfield. And if he felt disrespected – by contract disputes with management, stories suggesting someone else might be better, whatever – woe to the quarterback unlucky enough to face him in the next game.
He added another AP Defensive Player of the Year award to his trophy case in 1996, and probably should have repeated the honor in 1997. Switching to a 4-3 defense at midseason, after playing his first 12 seasons in a 3-4? Didn’t matter. He led the AFC in sacks again, made first-team All-Pro again, and did it on an aching knee that would require microfracture surgery after the season.
“I wish I had the opportunity to play in front of our fans one more time knowing that it was my last time. After 15 years in one place, the fans deserved better. I never got a chance to say goodbye.”
- New York Times, Feb. 27, 2000
By the end of the decade Smith was no longer the consistently dominant force he had once been, but he was still good enough to lead a playoff team in sacks, quarterback pressures, and forced fumbles. He took Drew Bledsoe down twice in a playoff-clinching overtime win in Foxborough, then added another 2.5 sacks against Steve McNair in the wild-card loss at Tennessee.
But he was about to turn 37, and he was due to make $4.8 million in 2000. With 10 players (including six starters) slated to hit free agency and the team already snug against the cap, general manager John Butler decided he had no other recourse than to lop off the aging, high-salaried core of the Super Bowl squads. Smith refused a 50 percent pay cut – as Butler knew he would – and joined Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed on the road out of Buffalo. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as new Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder jumped at the chance to throw a boatload of money at yet another big-name player.
“Being in the stadium with 70,000-plus fans — I felt their energy, and I hope that they felt mine.”
- Olean Times Herald, Oct. 20, 2003
Smith played in 217 regular-season games for the Bills, second only to Andre Reed’s 221. But on this afternoon, he walked out of the tunnel at Ralph Wilson Stadium toward the visitors’ sideline, wearing Redskins burgundy and gold. The uniform may have looked out of place, but the grin was instantly recognizable as the fans serenaded him with a familiar chorus of “Bruuuuuuuce.”
He came into the game with 196.5 sacks, two shy of taking Reggie White’s record and making it his own. Facing Bledsoe, a quarterback he’d flattened more often than any signal-caller not named O’Brien, must have seemed like a good omen. Not this time, though. He left Orchard Park with the same number, and the Bills rolled to an easy victory.
Although frustrated with the loss, Smith made sure to note the ‘hometown’ fans in his postgame comments. “It was certainly an emotional experience for me, coming back and seeing so many fans who were yelling and chanting and saying polite and kind words,” he said. “It was certainly a memorable experience for me. For all the years I’ve been here, they supported my career, and I just want to tell them thank you.”
“I know I’m not in second place any longer,” Smith said.
“When they print up the football cards, they won’t say, ‘Second place.’”
- Washington Post, Dec. 8, 2003
So who was the unfortunate record-breaker? Jesse Palmer, the Giants’ backup quarterback. (Smith knocked starter Kerry Collins out with a high ankle sprain earlier in the game.) He picked up one more sack two weeks later to make his career total an even 200 – the Bears’ Rex Grossman is the answer to that trivia question – then retired when Washington released him after the season.
Smith founded a commercial real estate development firm, Bruce Smith Enterprise, LLC, in 2004. The company is headquartered in Virginia Beach, where he, his wife Carmen, and their son Alston reside.
Precisely where he ranks in the pantheon of NFL legends is open to debate – Bruce or Reggie, and how does either one match up against Deacon Jones or Gino Marchetti? – but his place in Buffalo Bills history is secure. Simply put, he remains the best defensive player the franchise has ever seen, and that’s not likely to change for a long, long time.
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